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A man For All Seasons Re-Visited

Peggy Noonan was writing her first speech in The White House. Her assignment was to provide the remarks that Reagan would give when he gave the teacher of the year award in the Rose Garden. But she was stuck. So she called Bill Bennett then at The National Institute for the Humanities for urgent advice. Bennett replied immediately:-

“Okay: A Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More’s speech to Richard Rich. Rich is a bright young man not sure of his future More tells him, “Be a teacher.” Rich says, “And if I am a great teacher, who will know it?” More says, “You, your students, God. Not a bad audience, that”…Beautiful speech and true, Look it up, gotta go, bye”

The underlying story (here) is well known- of how Thomas More the son of a London lawyer became one of Europe’s greatest humanists, wrote the original Utopia, became Lord Chancellor of England in succession to the cynical Cardinal Wolsey but finally gave his life for the principle ( so it is said) that no single nation could break the unity of Christendom. No wonder then that that even some one such as A J Froude ( a full on Victorian public intellectual) should have written of him, that he was “one of the most interesting men that England ever produced” A generation later the liberal British statesman H.A. L. Fisher wrote that More was a “soldier of light” who was “one of the two greatest figures in [the] last age of Catholic England” And today the biographies keep coming. But More is probably now best known through the medium of Robert Bolt’s play quoted by Noonan and Reagan.

In view of the line which Bolt puts into More’s mouth about teaching it is hardly surprising to discover that Bolt was a teacher. And certainly “A Man for all Seasons” does work well- indeed perhaps a trifle too well- in the context of a school. I can still clearly remember a performance of it put at the boarding school I then attended in England in the late sixties. The central role was played by an English master who was a talented amateur actor and producer, and even then I recall by impressed by the wonderful speech in which More defends the rule of law– which left me receptive to Hayek’s development of the same point when I read The Road to Serfdom a little later.

Consequently the decision to write what follows was a no-brainer when the DVD of the film version turned up in my local supermarket, and when I found out that our favourite blogger Bovis had included A Man for all seasons in his list of “cool” films. And there is a lot to enjoy in the film. There are places of “laugh out loud” humour. And there are even perhaps occasional flickers of dramatic greatness here. But Bolt seems nervous of penetrating too deeply into the underlying psychology of the matter in hand. The production itself never escapes from the origins of the script in a stage production. There is a claustrophobia here which the fine photography of the opening credits is insufficient to alleviate.

This is always the film of a play- not a film. Despite moments when he seems over rehearsed Sir Paul Scofield as More is powerful. And he is well supported especially by Orson Welles as Wolsey playing one of his signature geriatric roles. And there are several other solid performances. This is certainly a film that is worth watching. But how seriously should we take it?

As a dramatist Bolt cannot be criticised for taking dramatic licence with the facts. This is the stuff of drama. But while the historical dramatist can change; he may not distort without becoming a propagandist. And there is at least one outright inaccuracy here which reflects the general bias of the film. At the end of the film an apparently authoritative “voice over” intones a litany of what became of the characters. And in this we are told that Henry’s death many years later was caused by syphilis. Well this is just not the way it was. According to Maria Perry:

“Contrary to popular belief, Henry did not have syphilis. Tudor historians have shown again and again that his doctor’s prescriptions included none of the contemporary remedies for that disease.”

This error, which would surely have been easy enough to correct, is part of the film’s tendency to make Henry’s behaviour seem even worse than it undoubtedly was. This central distortion in A man for all seasons,becomes clear early the film in a discussion between More and Wolsey in which the former criticises the latter for daring to put pressure on the Vatican. The reality in the dispute over the divorce (which Henry so desperately wanted) was that both sides did everything possible to influence the pope. The Vatican K Street was packed. Catherine even employed her own lobbyist in Rome– as did Henry. For Bolt to insinuate that only one side was involved is really outrageous and twists his narrative of the whole complicated affair.

The clash between Henry and More with which A Man for All Seasons deals was rooted in both the political history of England, and in the diplomatic realities of the time. The central issue with which Tudor statesmen (and women) were faced was that of political stability. Henry’s father had won his throne at the battle of Bosworth and his reign had been greatly disturbed by two unconvincing impostors had threatened his throne. It is true that the younger Henry was no saint. He was not reigning as St. Francis of Assisi. But his need for a son and heir was no self indulgent quest for a designer baby. It was something he saw as an absolute necessity. This is, of course, mentioned in the film. But in a film- even more than in a play- verbal references by themselves are not enough. We hear of Henry’s difficulties. But because we are never shown them we never feel them.

It is true though that in terms of Canon Law the case which Henry took to Rome against his marriage to Catherine was not good. But it was no worse than others which had been accepted in the past, and it needs to be remembered that he had made a (formal) protest against his first marriage to Catherine which he now wanted to have dissolved. Henry’s point then was not an unreasonable one, and he quite naturally felt that he had the right to a fair hearing. And this he was denied because of the way in which events in England began to interact with those in Italy.

There can have been no greater exponents of the dynastic marriage that Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. Not only did they marry fifth child their Catherine (b. 1485) to first Arthur and then Henry, but they also married their third child Juana ( b. 1479) to Philip of Austria whose son Charles became the Holy Roman Emperor, and lord of vast dominions across Europe, and in the Americas. During the course of his reign he became involved in lengthy wars against the French in Italy.

Just at the time when Henry and Wolsey were making their appeal to Rome Charles’ armies broke into Italy, and when they reached Rome forty thousand of his Imperial storm troopers went out of control, spent a week sacking the city, and massacred the Swiss Guard on the steps of St. Peter. The Pope- Clement- escaped through a tunnel, but from then on had only limited freedom of action.

From henceforth as Dr. William Robertson put it in the rotund prose of the eighteenth century:

“Charles, who espoused the protection of his aunt [Catherine] with zeal inflamed by resentment, alarmed the pope, on the one

hand, with threats which made a deep impression on his timid mind, and allured him, on the other, with those promises in favour of his family [-the Medicis] which he afterwards accomplished.”

The whole affair then- of which More’s story is but a fragment- was seeped in power politics, in diplomacy, and in the fear of political chaos. The point here is not that Henry was right and More wrong. But that Bolt does not give us the whole picture. His narrow focus hides more than it reveals. For all its great strengths the stage- and here of course a film derived from a stage play- limits the focus not just to the “now” but also to the “here.” In this instance the “here” of the More/ Henry relationship is only a small part of the events in question, and consequently Bolt’s almost exclusive focus on it creates the impression that the dispute was between master and servant, between the powerful and the powerless, and between good and evil.

But the broader context reveals a profoundly different picture. Ultimately it was Henry who was trapped. Trapped by Anne Boleyn- and his own ill judged enthusiasm for her, trapped by his arranged marriage, trapped by the absence of a legitimate son, trapped by Catherine’s intransigence, and above all trapped by Charles’ power and Clements’ timidity. It would be silly to depict Henry as an underdog. He had the whip hand over Catherine, and he treated her disgracefully. But he was a dog in a fight. It was More’s tragedy that he too was trapped, trapped by Henry yes, but also trapped by the same diplomatic realities which so frustrated Henry. Had Clement been able to move he could have saved More. Those who watched More die on that summer morning must have wondered whether his extraordinary sacrifice was for his faith or for the first Reich?

To my mind all this raises deep doubts about Bolt’s narrative, and these are compounded by the way in which his narrow focus eclipses two further parts of More’s character which have to be taken seriously if we are to reach a sound judgement about him, and about the credibility of the picture painted by Bolt.

Bolt hardly mentions More’s classic work Utopia, this is surely unfortunate. Short of some sensational discovery we will never know exactly what More meant when he wrote it. The commentators are divided. Some like Peter Ackroyd ( and implicitly I suppose Bolt) see it as an essentially ironical exercise- meant rather to expose legitimate grievances and not to provide a model for some future society. Others read the book more literally. Paul Turner writes that “with certain qualifications, the book means what it says and that it does [emphasis as in original] attempt to solve the problems of human society.”

If Turner is right ( and I think he makes a good case for his position) and Utopia was a serious “attempt to solve the problems of human society” then it was a very poor effort. If More’s vision was a blue print it was ugly. To take a couple of examples taken at random. Here is More on shopping:

“When the head of a household needs anything…he just goes to one of these shops and asks for it. And whatever he asks for, he’s allowed to take away without any sort of payment…And after all, why shouldn’t he? There’s enough more than enough of everything to go round. So there is no risk of his asking for more than he needs.”

This is the economics of Bedlam. More was an advocate of what Von Mises called “planned chaos.” Notice the way in which the price system has been abolished. What More fails to understand about prices is that they prioritise preferences, and without them there can be no rational allocation of capital. Moreover in the absence of prices More’s distribution points would have been overwhelmed with demand. Either severe rationing would have had to have been introduced; or the productive capacity of the system would have become exhausted. There would not have been “enough of everything to go round” for long.

And let no one think that the economic nonsense articulated in Utopia is unimportant. This is a book that has been translated from the original Latin into every imaginable language. It has launched a whole genre of literature which has helped fuel every socialist delusion in our time. Probably no book except for The Communist Manifesto has done as much to promote economic ignorance. This then must be a matter of concern to the free market community.

And it must raise questions about a play like Bolt’s which fans More’s reputation in an uncritical way. And this concern is compounded when as in this case Utopia contains a treatment of colonisation could easily have been written by an administrator in Nazi occupied Poland.

And alas even this is not all. Bolt’s play depicts More as kindly, decent, and essentially liberal man dedicated to education and committed to the rule of law. But this is not the whole picture. Despite the claims of the Protestant hagiographer John Fox More did not personally torture protestants in his basement in Chelsea. There was in fact no D.I.Y Lubyanka. Nevertheless “More was closely involved in the detection of heresy.” This involvement included writing violent anti protestant polemics, personally searching houses for banned Lutheran literature, and undertaking interrogations. According to Ackroyd More “truly believed” Lutherans “agents of the demons who must, if necessary, be destroyed by burning.” Are these really the views of a “soldier of light?” Are these really the actions of “a man for all seasons?” Are they not in truth the behaviour of someone caught up in some of the darkest delusions of his own time? Are they unimportant? And yet anyone who relied for his information about More on Bolt’s play would have no inkling that such beliefs and such activities were central to his character.

As I can testify the play A man for all seasons makes for a good evenings entertainment. It contains some fine moments- More’s speech about the rule of law, the passage about education, and the trail scene. Moreover the intimacy of the theatre neutralises the lack of broader context which I have criticised above. On the stage we know that what we see is not the whole picture. But in the film version, the fact that we could have been made aware of the context and were not, means that the More that emerges is a bland construct which owes little to the complexities of history.

Here then is the core of this film’s failure. The combination of the subject matter and the medium demanded some dramatic demonstration of Henry’s dilemma. And yet the film makes no serious attempt to do this. And further it fails to explore the complexities, the richness, and let us be frank here, the obsessive and intolerant parts of More’s character. Instead it offers a culturally cleansed central character which pleases but which fails to inform its audience. In truth then the clash between More and Henry needs to be told by a dramatist with a broader knowledge, a more penetrating imagination, and perhaps even a greater facility with the English language than Bolt possessed. I think then that Bovis is wrong to rate A Man for All Seasons so highly. This is a very watchable film with some fine moments, but like its hero it is not “for All Seasons.